Ayanna Lofton has two small children to feed, works three different jobs as a dental assistant and is attending Erie Community College to become a nurse.
She’s also got an entrepreneurial spirit, a quick smile and a ton of personality. She loves meeting people and could use a little extra cash.
In short, she’d be the perfect candidate to work for a ride-hailing company, such as Uber or Lyft.
But she lives in Buffalo, one of the nation’s largest cities without ride-hailing services.
Lofton, though, found a way around that obstacle.
On two weekends early this month, she drove to Erie, Pa., and Pittsburgh to earn a few dollars for her boys before Christmas.
Lofton is an Uber driver, certainly one of only a few in Western New York.
She’s since become a one-person advertisement for ride-hailing, which once again has surfaced as a hot topic in Albany.
“When they come to Buffalo, I’m going to jump right on that,” she said. “Uber would change the way people look at public transportation.”
The 22-year-old East High School graduate sees several benefits of the ride-hailing service. She believes it will take some young unemployed adults off the streets, into a more enticing job than working a cash register or flipping burgers; reduce the number of drunken people who jump into their cars after leaving bars and clubs; offer a more attractive mode of public transportation; and provide flexible, part-time hours for students and people working other jobs.
The battle over bringing Uber and Lyft to upstate New York has picked up steam recently, as the two San Francisco-based companies have waged an intense, expensive, behind-the-scenes effort, trying to build support in the state Assembly, which killed the bill last summer. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Buffalo Bills and Sabres co-owner Kim Pegula have added their voices to the renewed effort, and the state police-chiefs association has backed ride-sharing as a way to reduce drunken driving.
On the other side, livery companies continue to argue that the ride-sharing services fail to vet drivers’ backgrounds and don’t offer proper insurance. And taxicab officials have railed at the massive lobbying effort by Uber and Lyft.
Lofton, though, remains an unabashed supporter.
While attending ECC, she had to cut back on her hours working as a dental assistant.
“I looked into Uber, found out that I could drive in other states on my own time, so I signed up,” she said. “I needed extra money.”
Nervous at first, she drove with her sister to Erie the first weekend, ferrying passengers from 11 p.m. Friday to 7 a.m. Saturday. She picked up a dozen people, hardly enough to meet her round-trip driving costs, but she had jumped into the Uber pool, and she loved the experience.
Lofton believes a ride-sharing service can dramatically reduce the amount of drunken driving, as virtually all the people she picked up from clubs and bars that first night seemed to be drunk.
“In Pennsylvania, they said they don’t use yellow cabs anymore,” she said of her customers. “One of them said to me, ‘I’d rather be in a person’s car that is taken care of by the owner than a public transportation taxi.’”
The next weekend, she worked a 14-hour shift in Erie, before heading to Pittsburgh for a four-hour Saturday afternoon shift, sandwiched around some naps in her car. That double shift earned her about $270 total after Uber took its 20 percent cut.
“It became addictive to me,” she said. “I’m going to admit I got addicted to making money so fast and so easily, just meeting different people and being nice to them.”
That included one group of six people whom she picked up in her sport utility vehicle in Erie. All had been partying, and she let them plug in their auxiliary cord, as they all sang to the music together while she drove them home.
“It’s my rules in my car,” she explained.
Lofton, though, had to stop after her two weekends in Pennsylvania, because she lacked a PennDOT inspection sticker.
Besides itching to return to Uber, she believes so many other young people in Buffalo would love to be drivers, especially the unemployed or marginally employed, some of whom just hang out on the streets.
“It would encourage more people to work because it’s more flexible [than other jobs],” she said. “Nobody wants to stand behind a cash register all day. It’s more convenient, there’s no boss hanging over your shoulder, and it’s your hours.”
Lofton just can’t understand why Buffalo and upstate New York still have no ride-hailing services.
“The fact we don’t have Uber here is almost medieval. Everybody else has it. We’re behind, and we need to catch up.”